Fracking Discussion at Kent Council a Question of State Versus Local Law
Council votes to send letter to state legislators urging fracking oversight; continue conversation
The question of whether or not Kent can ban fracking within city limits became a question of state government versus local government at Wednesday's Kent City Council meeting.
Residents pleaded with council members to adopt an ordinance banning hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method of drilling for natural gas, by urging them to lead by example and challenge state authority.
In the end, after three hours of talking with a capacity crowd, council took two steps forward.
First, council members voted to send a letter regarding fracking to state legislators and officials at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources — the agency that regulates oil and gas drilling in Ohio — on behalf of Kent residents.
Councilman John Kuhar said the letter should also go to Gov. John Kasich asking that the governor "and appropriate parties further research, scrutinize and adjust regulations for the fracking industry."
Those "adjustments," Kuhar said, should deal with four elements: reducing quantity of water used in the fracking process; examining disposal methods of wastewater; increasing transparency regarding chemicals used in the frack water; and evaluating any aspects that may have a negative effect on the surrounding environment.
"When you put pressure on a government, they react," Kuhar said. "Maybe that’s the answer, to get the communities to put pressure on our lawmakers and regulators."
Kent Law Director asked if the letter should be sent to every state legislator and senator.
"And maybe as an open letter to the editor in every major newspaper in the state?” Silver asked. His question garnered applause from the crowd at council chambers.
Secondly, council voted to have city administrators confer with other communities dealing with the issue of fracking and bring the results of that research back to council no later than four months from now.
"I don't want the conversation to end tonight," Councilwoman Tracy Wallach said.
That conversation included comments made by 28 members of the public who spoke on the issue — some for, some against — excluding council members and city administrators.
The two actions council took Wednesday stemmed from a discussion over whether the city has the right to challenge state laws governing the oil and gas drilling industry or if it must simply follow and enforce those laws.
Silver told council members before their discussion that they do not have the power to regulate fracking.
"The oil and gas industry is regulated in over 14 different chapters of the Ohio Revised Code," he said. "The state has reserved unto itself the ability to regulate in Ohio the extraction of oil and gas from underneath the ground. Rightly or wrongly, that’s what we have."
That same argument came from David Beck, of Ravenna-based Beck Energy, a small, family owned company that drills for oil and natural gas in Ohio.
Beck said that state-level regulation ensures drilling companies work with public officials to improve drilling methods and safety.
"Since 1978, we've drilled more than 300 wells, most of them in Portage County," Beck said. “Every one of those wells was fracked. Some of those right here in Franklin Township, right through Kent’s water field. It was done safely. It was done properly."
Several speakers disagreed with Beck and Silver and said Kent council does not have to follow and uphold state laws, per council's oath of office.
George Chaney said the bill of rights ordinance Concerned Citizens of Ohio presented to council should, if passed, supersede any rights due to a corporation.
"You're sworn to uphold the laws of the nation, state and city, and that’s important," Chaney said. "At the same time, I don’t think there’s anything in the oath … that prevents you from protesting law or challenging existing law."
Residents urged council to do just that: challenge state law.
"It’s not a clear cut case of ‘this is what the law says and this is what we have to do,’" Kent resident Chris Cotton said. "You are the Kent City Council … and not the Kent branch of the Ohio State House of Representatives."
Ellen Carvill-Zeimer, a member of the group urging adoption of the bill of rights ordinance, said the residents understand the issue is not one council can take definitive action on any time soon.
"We expect you as our elected officials to do due diligence on this matter, and we know that will take a little time," she said. "We promise to come back and continue the conversation."
Council members voted unanimously to send the letters to state leaders and review the issue again within the next four months.
"I really feel it’s important to move this discussion forward," Councilwoman Heidi Shaffer said. "I have so many concerns that have been expressed tonight about inadequate regulation, lack of oversight, transparency. I think it’s imperitave that we voice our concerns to the state."